Information flows affecting coverage of medical research in the UK quality press
The project aimed to describe and critically evaluate information flows about medical research affecting UK quality newspapers. It focused particularly on the transfer of information from peer reviewed medical journals. In-depth interviews were conducted with media relations personnel at key organisations involved in medical research or more general health issues, and with specialist medical and health correspondents working for the national broadsheet press. The samples were purposively selected. Content analysis techniques were used to study news articles derived from information published in the British Medical Journal and the Lancet, which were compared with the original journal articles and any news releases associated with them. Many interacting factors shape media coverage of medical research and the personal motivations and preferences of a variety of individuals can play an important role. However, researchers, press officers and journalists are all constrained by their working relationships and contexts, so it is possible to identify certain common patterns of influence on the information flows. Press officers' activities are constrained by the characteristics and context of their organisations, particularly by the formal and cultural position of the press office within the organisation, and by relationships with other organisations in the field of interest which compete with their own for media access. Most importantly, they are constrained by their "go-between" role between their own organisation and media representatives who themselves operate under particular constraints. Press officers who liaise with researchers and journalists must seek acceptable compromises between scientific and news values. Specialist journalists are subject to the constraints of daily news reporting, and their stories must be strong in generally applicable news values if they are to be printed. The medical correspondents interviewed tried to avoid "over-sensationalisation" of stories because they had a sense of responsibility towards both their audience and their sources, but they had to be careful not to "kill" stories in their editors' eyes. Being unable to evaluate research evidence themselves, the journalists relied heavily on the authority of orthodox medical opinion in their story selection and development decisions. Their dependenceo n sourceso f authority encouragedt hem to write within a medical paradigm. Peer reviewed medical journals, articularly prestigious general journals, are regularly used as sources of news stories. Various factors encourage press officers and journalists to focus on a research project when it is about to be published. In particular, the peer review process is used by journalists as a quality safeguard, and journal policies against prior publication of material discourage researchers from discussing their work until it is safely in academically and professionally acceptable print. Several major medical research organisations invest heavily in media relations. Those which journalists regard as credible, and which can package information to suit their needs can successfully improve their media access. Future research should consider the roles of corporate culture and of competition between organisations involved with medical research in shaping information flows and media relations activity.